Our Guide to the Best Music Festivals in Iceland
The stereotypical view of Iceland is that it is pretty dark, cold and generally bleak most of the time. But, with its black sand beaches, towering glaciers and winding fjords, it’s also as picturesque as any country you can think of. So although some might prematurely consider it an inhospitable location, it’s actually home to some of the most beautiful and unique music festivals in Europe, if not the world.
And the Scandinavian country, supported by a flourishing and eclectic music scene, is now home to some of the biggest and best in what festivals can offer to fans of any genre as well as new experiences for even the most seasoned and jaded festival goers.
From the bustling streets of its capital city Reykjavik, to its surrounding glaciers, volcanoes and lakes, Iceland provides locations that make a much needed change from the usual soggy festival sites, and mix huge international headliners as well as up and coming local Icelandic acts to provide the perfect line ups to suit its otherworldly locales.
We’ve broken down the best five festivals the country has to offer for you here to discover and explore throughout the calendar year.
Extreme Chill Festival: 6th – 9th July
Now in its eight year, the Extreme Chill Festival is Iceland’s premier electronica and ambient festival, situated in Hellissandur, a village on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. With one of the most unique festival sites in the world, attendees can explore photography, field recordings and video installations whilst also listening to cutting edge electronic music assisted by a Funktion One sound system, all laid out on a beach setting sandwiched between the prominent Snæfelsglacier and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
With a small yet dedicated following, it won’t have endless muddy fields and queues to trudge through like your average festival, yet tickets still always sell out in advance, aided by its extremely reasonable 7,900ISK (80GBP) ticket price, and combination of recognised acts like The Orb and Mixmaster Morris playing alongside local electronic artists like Stereo Hypnosis and Tonik Ensemble.
Iceland Airwaves: 1st – 5th November
Iceland Airwaves follows in the recent trend that European festivals have for taking over a whole city for a week or longer and using all of its best locations for gigs, raves and miscellaneous debauchery, similar to Sonar in Barcelona, or Melt! in Berlin.
The massive upside of this is that if you’re unlucky enough to miss out on tickets, or can’t afford the 21,900ISK (220GBP) weekend ticket price, then there are still many ‘Off Venue’ events happening all around Reykjavik over the five days, many for free or a fraction of the price.
With acts as big as Bjork and PJ Harvey having headlined in the past, 2017 looks to be just as big, with bands like Fleet Foxes and Arab Strap having already signed up well in advance for the five day November takeover.
Secret Solstice: 15th – 18th June
Although the youngest festival on the list, having only started in 2014, Secret Solstice has already grown to be the biggest and most internationally recognised in Iceland, gaining rapid notoriety by offering some truly wild experiences, such as the first rave ever held inside a glacier, and private concerts held in volcanoes.
With the main stages all located in one area within the Laugardalur recreational area of Reykjavík, right next to Reykjavík's largest swimming pool, and the event taking place over the country’s summer solstice; one of only a few in the world that brings midnight sunshine, you can see why the festival has gained such attention so quickly.
The acts on show are as big as any in the world too. This year saw Rick Ross, Prodigy and Foo Fighters headline, whereas bands like Radiohead, Deftones and the Wu Tang Clan have graced it’s stages in the past.
Dark Music Days: 25th – 27th January
In complete contrast to Secret Solstice, Dark Music Days takes place during Iceland’s winter solstice; the darkest period of its calendar year, and is altogether a more considered, intellectual affair.
Founded in 1980 by the Iceland Composers’ Society, the event takes place in downtown Reykjavík’s Harpa concert hall, and was originally a place for Icelandic composers to present their work, but has now grown into a festival that celebrates all forms of contemporary music from both sides of the Atlantic.
With its intimate crowd and setting and emphasis on discussion and exploration of the work, it’s definitely a festival for genuine music enthusiasts, and both international and native applications are encouraged for every years showcase.
Sonar Reykjavik: 16th – 18th February
One of the many global spin off’s from the original Sonar Barcelona festival, Sonar Reykjavik prides itself on its intimacy and quality of line up provided. In a similar vein to the original Sonar, the festival takes place over a variety of locations dotted around the capital, with two main stages for headline acts and an underground car park repurposed into a nightclub for DJ’s to play through the night.
With only 3,500 attendees, tickets are sparse and much sought after, and it’s no wonder when you get the chance to see massive names like Moderat, Ben Klock and Fatboy Slim play in personal, up close settings, instead of in the huge stadiums or super clubs that you’d normally have to.
Westman Island Festival: 3rd – 5th August
You probably won’t be able to pronounce it’s name in Icelandic, Þjóðhátíð (it means national holiday), but if you’ve ever thought about what it would be like to party after some kind of sexy apocalypse, then the Westman Island Festival (as it’s known in English) is for you.
Situated on a windswept island with an recently active (but now dormant) volcano cooled by strong North Atlantic Ocean gusts, it originally started as a celebration for islanders who couldn’t make the dangerously weathered trip across to mainland, but has now grown into one of the most fascinating festivals in the world.
Even though it’s held in the height of Icelandic summer, meaning there will be plenty of light well past bedtime, the weather is often cold, so decent camping gear is a must and party goers are often dressed like Nordic fishermen, although to be honest that is very on trend at the moment anyway.
It begins on Thursday night’s ‘Hook-Up Ball’, where attendees are openly encouraged to find a partner to be with for the rest of the weekend, and then goes on to have huge communal bonfires, fireworks and a spectacular finale in which the rim of the volcano is brought to life with thousands of torches to recreate its recent eruptions.
Although a music festival, it’s not about huge headline acts but about great vibes and a unique environment, kind of like Coachella if LA was pushed back into the times of the Vikings, if you can imagine that.